Earthquake building standards unlikely to be lifted

Maurice Williamson: Stand-alone residential buildings not included

The current earthquake standard of 33% for New Zealand buildings is likely to remain unchanged under recommendations by the Canterbury earthquakes royal commission.

The commission today released volume four of its report into the quakes, which makes 36 recommendations covering how earthquake-prone buildings are identified, assessed and managed.

At the same time, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has released its own consultation document on proposals to improve the earthquake-prone buildings policy system.

Ministry propsals include:

  • All non-residential and multi-unit, mutli-storey residential buildings be seismically assessed within five years of any policy and regulatory changes taking place. The information as to whether the building is above or below the threshold will then be made publicly available on a register.
  • All quake-prone buildings be strengthened, or demolished, within 15 years of the changes taking effect (up to five years for local authorities to complete seismic capacity assessments, followed by 10 years for owners to strengthen or demolish buildings).
  • Strenghtening would be carried out faster for certain buildings (eg, buildings on transport routes identified as critical in an emergency).
  • Certain buildings could be exempted or be given longer time to strengthen – eg, low-use rural churches or farm buildings with little passing traffic.

The royal commission's recommendations are mainly similar, while others go further:

  • Amending the Building Act 2004 to require and authorise territorial authorities to ensure completed assessments of all unreinforced masonry buildings within their districts within two years from enactment of the amendment, and all other potentially earthquake-rpone buildings within five years from enactment.
  • The legislation should be further amended to require they, in the case of unreinforced masonry buildings, the out-of-plane resistance of chimneys, parapets, ornaments and external walls to lateral forces shall be strengthened to be equal or greater than 50% of quake-prone standard.
  • Guidance should be provided by MBIE to territorial authorities on the factors to be considered in setting discretionary policies under the amended legislation. These factors should include the nature of a community's building stock, economic impact, numbers of passers-by for some buildings, levels of occupancy, and potential impact on key infrastructure in a time of disaster.

The government has estimated there are between 15,000 and 25,000 quake-prone buildings in New Zealand.

Building and construction minister Maurice Williamson admits recommendations made by the royal commission could have significant economic implications for owners of unsafe buildings.

He says public consultation on all recommendations begins today and finishes in March next year.

"We owe it to the 42 people who died outside of the PGC building and the CTV building from falling debris and unreinforced masonry, to get it right."

He denies the need to amend the Building Act to improve quake standards or an "ultimate limit standard" above the current 33%.

Mr Williamson says the February 22 quake was a "cataclismic" event and to create a nationwide policy based on such a one-off event would be too costly.

"It's like saying we can only drive Audi A8s because they're safer. We'd all be safer but we'd also be bankrupt. This involves a delicate balance."

Mr Williamson is also not planning to include stand-alone residential buildings in the policy changes. However, aspects of those buildings, such as unreinforced masonry, would be included.

He says many building owners around the country have already moved to improve the strength of their buildings, mainly at the request of the tenant.

"And good on them. I hope more building owners chose to move more rapidly of their own volition. You're likely to see lower insurance premiums and perhaps higher rental levels."

He says he is reluctant to offer tax incentives for owners to bring their buildings up to standard, but accepts the idea will be canvassed in the consultation period.

Mr Williamson warns if building owners failed to comply under the proposed time period, the  buildings would be not be able to be tenanted.

"It wouldn't be good to have a standard and then have someone thumb their nose at it."

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